However it trades over Christmas, Marks & Spencer should start the new year with some extra spring in its step.
That’s because Justin King, famous for reviving the fortunes of Sainsbury’s, is joining the M&S board as a non-executive director.
King should bring further intellectual firepower and astute consumer understanding to the bellwether business as chief executive Steve Rowe presses on with his turnaround efforts.
The appointment marks a return to M&S for King. He originally joined in 2001 and, as food boss, was one of the people behind the launch of Simply Food, the convenience business that has helped sustain M&S over recent years while the performance of its fashion arm has faltered.
“Rowe has always maintained that he and Norman make a good team and agree 85% of the time”
King has another important M&S connection – chair Archie Norman. King came to M&S from Asda. There he worked with Norman on the grocer’s turnaround, widely seen as one of the most impressive business rescues in UK retail history.
In the past, there has been speculation that King might become chief executive of M&S. His name was in the frame in 2014 when he left Sainsbury’s and the capabilities of then M&S chief executive Marc Bolland were being questioned.
King’s arrival in the M&S boardroom – he starts on January 2 – will, while pretty implausible, no doubt set tongues wagging once again about whether he is destined to run British retail’s most venerable name, as some ask how well Rowe and the hands-on Norman get along.
Rowe has always maintained that he and Norman make a good team and agree 85% of the time, debate 10% of the time and never agree 5% of the time.
The M&S statement on King’s appointment seems to back the view that the pair are united. Rowe said he was “delighted that Justin has agreed to join us” and it “will be enormously helpful to have his experience, wisdom and insight on the board”.
King said: “I look forward to joining the board and supporting Steve.”
Norman said King “completes a very significant reorientation of the board in the last year” and “will be a great addition to a strong team”.
So a united front was definitely presented, designed in part no doubt to dissuade gossip about whether leadership change could be on the cards – although should Norman and Rowe’s agreement-to-disagreement ratio ever shift too much, the presence of such a seasoned executive on the board would give Norman an obvious option.
The sense of unity is good because the reshaped team at M&S can add up to more than the sum of its parts by bringing together distinct but complementary strengths. Common purpose and a shared depth of retail experience give M&S a better chance of restoring its fortunes.
Alongside the strengthening of the main board, M&S has many new faces on its executive team covering retail from stores to online. They range from food boss Stuart Machin – another Norman protégé – to chief digital and data officer Jeremy Pee who started this month, to food marketing director Sharry Cramond.
“M&S has the people and strategic building blocks in place to make up and gain ground lost over the years.”
M&S would be at pains to point out that it is a long way away from achieving its ambitions – it has had to cut jobs and shut shops – but there is some encouragement in the fact that it looks increasingly as if it has the people and strategic building blocks in place to make up and gain ground lost over the years.
King’s involvement can only improve the chances of that happening. There is a good story told about his time at Sainsbury’s: on his first day as chief executive, it is said, various top brass at HQ lined up for his arrival. But there was no sign of him.
Eventually, someone called his mobile. “Justin, where are you? Everybody was expecting you at work today.” King replied: “I am at work. I’m visiting stores.”
Whether true or apocryphal, the anecdote does not only enhance King’s reputation. It is a reminder that decisions at the top of a retail business need to be informed by first-hand observation and knowledge of the front line – whether bricks and mortar or, increasingly these days, the online store.